Bike thefts and the bewildering toll of the invasion of cyclists’ pockets

A happy couple and their dog, Lulu, stand outside their Etobicoke apartment, all smiles, beside the noisy warren of cars, trams and buses that converge on the main downtown drag of Dufferin Street each day.

Many more lives would have been thrown into limbo had a young man not decided to take a stand when his son took a makeshift bicycle helmet built of corrugated cardboard and a bicycle seat out of the front yard of a dead-end laneway a few weeks ago.

When he spotted the helmet bike being wheeled into his home by its owner, he flagged down a car and a stranger called the police, alerting them to the theft. Within two hours of the call, police had secured the bike and then, in an exercise in instant community diplomacy, had negotiated with the bike’s owner to return it. Thanks to the intervention of a YouTube user that set up a crowdfunding campaign, this unusual case raised the profile of the helmet bike as a symbol of a growing issue in Toronto: the theft of all bicycles and the theft of all other property, like power tools, that thieves take in a moment’s initiative. The response has been heartening: the number of stolen bikes has fallen, as the bikers with whom I discussed the trend pointed out. But that did not prevent thefts of bikes and bicycles-like items like sideboards and lockers from rising. “Bike theft is the new bike-rack theft,” said Christine Bailly, a bike salesperson at CRSA, Canada’s largest bike shop, adding that sales of lockers and bicycle frames were far more common than those of the top-line bikes sold by her customers. Toronto police say they have increased enforcement of bike theft. They enforce bike locks at numerous public bike racks in order to deter thieves. And they also crowdsource the kind of site that Catapoool projects is now doing, in which people report, by text, when they’ve seen bike thefts. But, police stressed, they had far fewer resources than they once had for area patrol cars equipped with buzzers to find stolen bikes; that meant that bike patrols often drove to isolated public facilities to issue an arrest notice for a bike. “The suspects can just walk off with it,” said Inspector Chiraag Patkar of the Fraud Squad’s bike squad. The police are now also encouraging residents to report any bicycle thefts themselves. For all its progress, what Toronto can really boast about are the incidents that do not get reported, because they are not reported in the first place, by people who no longer own their bikes. One explanation is that bike thefts are less often caught on video. Since the skateboard footage of the helmet bike is such an unusual case, many victims may be tempted to simply forget about the theft, and keep riding. But there is another reason. “I feel like most people, if they learn of a bike theft, do not bother reporting it,” explained one bike path user, who complained that people sometimes take as long as a month to report a bike theft after it occurs. Meanwhile, streets are lined with buildings with numbered fences or chain link built into the brickwork — less exposed to video surveillance.

All told, this year’s state-funded bike-path camera program has been live for only about a month, compared with 16 months for Toronto Public Library’s security cameras installed last year.

Another misconception may be the psychological reservation people have to know someone is watching their bikes and or other items. “Maybe, to them, it would be weird if someone else was actually filming them,” shrugged a member of the Toronto Port Authority’s bicycle safety advisory committee. In theory, municipal authorities could technically install a hidden camera on any car or lamppost that might catch somebody breaking a window or taking a bike. In practice, though, “parole officers, probation officers, police and inspectors have nothing that would preclude them from taking them [the stolen items],” said Constable Clint Stibbe, a Toronto police spokesperson. For the time being, though, the only thing that might prevent offenders from committing any further bike thefts is being caught on camera by someone, one might reasonably argue, more understanding of bicycle nature than a selfish teenager.

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